The Hidden Power of Barcodes

Barcode with capeMany Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) projects target the automation of critical laboratory functions for initial deployments, preferring to focus on solution ‘must-haves’ while often overlooking substantial benefits that could be realized from implementing other features. All too often, this results in a system without key instrument and data visualization/manipulation interfaces.  Perhaps one of the most overlooked and under-implemented interfaces is the simple but powerful barcode.

Barcodes have been around for many years in consumer spaces – but what can they do for a laboratory?  The answer largely depends on what kind of technology is used: traditional barcodes or Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID).

Traditional Barcodes

Traditional barcodes exist in two forms: One-Dimensional and Two-Dimensional.  Both types involve using an optical sensor at a set distance to read the information on the barcode.  One-Dimensional barcodes typically track just one piece of data, such as the sample number.  Two-Dimensional barcodes (e.g. QR Code, Data Matrix, MaxiCode, Aztec) are able to contain much more data, including sample ID, customer ID, lot numbers, and more.

The type of barcode selected for an organization depends on the needs of both the laboratory and unique customer requirements.  Regardless of choice, certain benefits come with the use of any barcode solution:

  • Reduction of transcription errors. Perhaps the most dramatic consequence of adopting barcodes, eliminating transcription errors can save both time (delayed results, investigations, or retesting) and money (paper forms no longer needing review, GDP, or record retention).  These types of problems are typically home to large hidden costs and inefficiencies.
  • Quick and easy updates of sample status/location when scanning barcodes to record movement throughout the laboratory. For labs receiving external samples, barcodes can reduce activities around sample receipt and chain of custody tracking to a simple scan
  • Inventory replenishment activities can be performed by scanning bulk packages that have been received as opposed to manually entering item, quantity, and vendor information. You can even label your locations with barcodes to facilitate inventory location tracking.


RFIDThe newest trend in sample management, RFID, promises to transform lab operations by allowing encoded information to be read wirelessly from a distance.  Inexpensive, unpowered RFID tags are placed on samples and ‘come to life’ when they are exposed to a powered read/write device. These devices can take many shapes, including handheld readers, gates around laboratory doors, sampling locations, and even personnel!

RFID represents the next generation of barcode abilities and offers all the features of traditional barcodes, but adds some powerful benefits:

  • Identify items without direct line of site. For example, a handheld wand could report which samples are stored in a given freezer or stability chamber simply by waving the wand past the samples or containers.
  • Automatic sample updates. RFID technology enables automatic updates to sample status and chain of custody records. A scanner placed around a doorway for secure sample storage would allow a LIMS to automatically track which items have been stored or retrieved.  If RFID tags are embedded on personnel ID tags, the system could even record who placed or removed the samples and when.
  • Uniquely identify an individual item beyond sample number. Think tracking and recording each time a sample is moved in and/or out of storage (i.e. a freezer).
  • Identify many items simultaneously. Batches of samples can be instantly received and recorded by the LIMS with appropriate sample receipt reports printed automatically at the time of scanning.  Similarly, tracking of bulk movements of samples is greatly simplified, including movements in and around the laboratory.

Sample disposition and disposal.  Recording the final disposition or destruction of sample material doesn’t have to be any more difficult than identifying samples and throwing them away in designated locations that are equipped with RFID scanners.

It’s clear that the entire sample lifecycle – from registration (login), to receipt, testing, storage, and disposal – can all reap benefits from the utilization of RFID technology. The value of RFID scales with widespread deployment in areas where large numbers of samples need to be tracked and managed, bringing the cost of adopting the technology well worth the initial investment.

If you haven’t already adopted barcoding or RFID technology, do you feel that your organization would benefit?  If so, which technology would you go with?

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